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Controlling The Pitch

Lori Haynes Niles

One of my deepest convictions about teaching is that it must be learner-focused. I believe that's the biblical model. When Jesus taught, he didn't throw a fast pitch of truth out to people and expect them to bat like the pros. Instead, he brought great truths to people in ways they could grasp -- like you do when you teach a toddler to play catch. Jesus told stories based on learners' personal experiences. He brought objects from their world along to make his point. He took the time to get to know who his learners were, then he developed personal ways to meet their needs.

Sometimes we use curriculum like a fast pitch. We prepare, wind up, throw, and hope the kids catch the message. Don't get me wrong here -- I believe in the value of good curriculum and have spent many hours writing and editing lessons that I hope anyone can use effectively. But lately, I've been thinking a lot about how I can get the focus off what we educators do and on what our students do.

I've discovered there are lots of ways to do this. We make sure we greet each child by name. We ask questions about what's important to kids -- and we listen. We hone our observation skills so we can better understand a child's play. We display children's artwork. We mold clay with them. We talk to parents. We visit homes. We focus on kids' voices so when they call our names, we can answer without looking to see who spoke. We ask their opinions. We give them opportunities to retell the story to us. We pray for them -- not just in passing -- but really communicate with God about who these children are and who they'll become. And as we do these things, we begin to see ways we can tweak our lessons so the activities we bring to the classroom aren't just appropriate for the age level we're teaching, but they're also appropriate for the children we're teaching.

When I student-taught more years ago than I like to brag about, my supervising teacher told me something that continues to form me as a teacher as it plays over and over in my head. She said, "Lori, you aren't these kids' mother. They all have mothers. You aren't their friend. They have friends. But you're the only fifth-grade teacher they'll ever have." I learned from Juanita Yancey that I needed to know my place in my learners' lives, and theirs in mine.

Children don't learn from curriculum (as wonderful a tool as it is). Children don't learn from Sunday school (as wonderful a place as it is). Children learn from relationships with teachers like you.

Because you know your students, you can speak into their lives in a way no one else can. If we aren't clearly convinced of our place in kids' lives, we may be tempted to focus on our preparation, our neat activities, our storytelling ability -- and subtly lose track of the vision that it's all about them and God's grace that comes through us as vehicles of his love.

So choose the best curriculum you can find. Use all your teaching tools to the best of your ability. Prepare as though the peace of the session depends on it (it does). Learn everything you can about developmental characteristics. But remember: The most important knowledge you have -- the expertise no one else can mimic that'll make a difference in your learners' lives -- is the fact that you know them.

Lori Niles is the teaching director of Moreland Family Preschool, an associate pastor, and a teacher at the seminary level in Portland, Oregon.

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